Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor review impressions

September 20, 2016 by Laura Michet

Life ain't easy in this adorable little hive of scum and villainy.

Picking up trash in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is honestly not that bad. It’s entertaining, actually -- which is a big departure from other games I’ve played which are about living in poverty.

In Diaries, you play a janitor “drone” who’s paid absolute peanuts for plucking trash up off the street and destroying it in your battery-powered backpack incinerator. Days are short, and sometimes you don’t make much cash. Maybe the trash is sparse, or you’ve been robbed by the cops. Maybe your luck is just bad. (Luck, actually, is a stat.)

Some days, you’ll barely make enough money to pay for both your food and for the “gendershift” medicine you must take to “shift” between a list of wacky-sounding genders and keep yourself healthy. Life is tough; even praying to the nine goddesses whose shrines dot the city doesn’t seem to substantially relieve the grind.

Diaries follows in the tradition of Cart Life, Spent, and Skulljhabit, games that also simulated the lifestyle of an impoverished, oppressed laborer and forced the player to grapple with the costs of life on the brink.

In Diaries, you spend most days wandering past stall vendors who sell things far too expensive for you to ever buy. When you’re hungry, sometimes you can only afford cheap energy drinks from alleyway vending machines. Sometimes you’re too poor to buy the medicine you need, and you go to sleep with your screen crawling with itchy static. Most people on the street will insult you, or mock you about your gender; you’re absolutely living at the bottom rung of this spaceport’s social ladder. At the beginning of the game, your mission is made clear: to get off-planet and find a new life.

Unlike the games which seemed to have inspired it, though, the core mechanic of Diaries-- picking trash off the street -- is legitimately entertaining. Every morning, you wander out your front door and are immediately faced with a vast trashstravaganza -- a trash smorgasboard -- of funny little pieces of space trash. Each has a description, and many of them are quite amusing. The trash art is colorful and weird. And since some of the trash is valuable, you’ve got to inspect every little piece of trash and choose whether or not to store it so that you can sell it to a street vendor. This is mostly pretty enjoyable!

Real poverty, on the other hand, is not enjoyable. It feels bad! Cart Life was about making you feel bad. It was so difficult and sad, actually, that most people I know did not even manage to finish it.

Diaries, on the other hand, is a game about an imaginary world and an imaginary poverty where the poverty isn’t so awful that you actually want to stop playing the game. Diaries isn’t pessimistic. It wants you to believe that your little janitor can escape the grind and live a good life. You’re constantly buying gendershift medicine from vending machines which warn you that “doing unauthorized genders” is not allowed -- but the gender names are pretty hilarious, and the medicine isn’t ridiculously expensive. Even this echo of real-world oppression doesn’t feel that bad. Diaries looks to the future with clear eyes and a fair amount of hope. It’s got real-world problems in it, but here they’re rendered somewhat approachable.

The world is charming, too, and I can’t really make myself hate it, even though it seems so aligned against me. Though everyone in the game was insulting me and threatening me almost constantly, and although I often almost ran out of money, my experience in Diaries was more about whimsy than peril.

Even the most threatening things in your life are kinder than they easily could have been. For example, at the beginning of the game, you venture into a disorienting, first-person “sewerdungeon” where you are inadvertently cursed with a gigantic skull that constantly whirls around your head and screams at you. But this is funny, actually. You spend the rest of the game picking up trash, yeah, but you’re primarily focusing on completing a bunch of amusing skull-curse-related sidequests for a variety of odd characters.

My only major complaint about Diaries is that one of those quests -- a mission to buy nine idols depicting the city’s nine goddesses -- can be extremely boring and monotonous. After accepting it, I spent several in-game days learning the city’s layout and figuring out where the religious items were sold by street vendors. (Different categories of purchasable items are confined to different parts of the city.)

But vendors’ wares are randomized daily! I was at the mercy of RNG, and for almost two in-game weeks I was unable to locate any vendors who were selling the last two idols I needed to complete the quest. I had nothing else to do, and I’d found or purchased the first seven so quickly that this difficulty seemed undesigned -- not really part of the intended experience. By the end of it I was quite frustrated. I’ve got no way of knowing whether this was merely the result of weird RNG, my own ignorance, or what. (I’ve somewhat forgiven it by now, though.)

What I most enjoyed in Diaries is the sense of place offered by the boroughs of the rough little spaceport. This game’s artists achieved an exciting amount of texture with their simple, low-fi artstyle; Diaries has 3D environments, but your character and most of the people and items in this world are paper-doll-like 2D pixel-art figures. The aliens are wacky-looking oddballs-- hovering goop monsters, robots, animal-people, talking sharks, and so on. It’s clear that this is a spaceport where cultures come together, but it also has its own identity and character, its own culture, and its own rhythm of special days and public celebrations.

After a few weeks in this city, you’ll grow familiar enough with it to start feeling like a citizen -- and to start liking it and its quirks, despite your character’s desire to escape. Once every nine-day week, the city throws a festival where stages go up around town and people gather to dance and play repetitive but oddly-catchy music.

There’s a holy ziggurat in the middle of town surrounded by people selling rather whimsical swords, guns, and breastplates. Elsewhere in that district, there’s a giant sword stuck in the ground. There’s secret little green areas tucked between the buildings, where religious shrines stand under spreading trees. Everyone is fascinated by the concept of luck, and many people on the street will share their private little rituals for maximizing your luck stat. This place feels alive.

It’s cute and whimsical enough that, to be honest, I sometimes couldn’t understand why my character wanted to leave. For a game about crushing poverty, skull curses, and the experience of being trapped, the place Diaries chooses to trap you in is honestly more entertaining than a lot of places I’ve been in games.